Monday, December 2, 2013

Another interesting glimpse into how well Bryan Caplan would do on a Turing test

The question he asks is what evil in plain sight today will be abhorred by our descendants. Interestingly, he frames this in terms of political ideologies - liberalism, conservatism, and libertarianism. He claims that liberalism offers us the problem of cruelty to animals, conservatism offers us the problem of abortion, and libertarianism offers us the problem of our treatment of foreigners.

The really odd pair are the liberal/libertarian options. Before getting to that I want to say that he makes a good point on abortion. I'm pro-choice, but I've come around to the view that pro-lifers (I used to be one of them too!) have a potentially legitimate case. Of course it all depends on personhood which is not an easy thing to know what to think of. Having been through a pregnancy and having a child now I still don't know what to think of the question of personhood. Indeed that's a big part of why I'm pro-choice. In the face of such a contested question I find it hard to tell everyone to follow one viewpoint. But if the conservative view is correct this is a monstrosity.

OK, back to liberalism and libertarianism.

The liberalism one was weak and the libertarian one was confusing.

We're animals, and animals eat other animals. Most liberals are happy to eat other animals for exactly this reason. Tough luck - you're below us on the food chain. Of course outright cruelty to animals isn't a good thing, but that's not what Bryan is talking about and do you really have to be a liberal to think that cruelty to animals is bad? I hope not. Bryan takes some unusual life-style choices that are plausibly more common among liberals and invents a moral problem where there really isn't one.

The libertarian case - our treatment of foreigners - is confusing because I think of this as being a liberal thing as much as a libertarian thing. And indiscriminate pacifism on the part of some libertarians (and liberals) is not better treatment of foreigners, it's worse treatment. It's not that this isn't characteristic of a lot of libertarians (although many are anti-immigration), but it just doesn't seem as distinctive as Bryan would like it to be.

There is a very obvious liberal option that is different from conservatism or libertarianism: concern for individuals who happen to be disadvantaged due to the circumstances of their birth. I'm not just talking about feeling bad for the disadvantaged any more than Bryan is talking about just feeling bad for slaves. Everyone feels bad for the disadvantaged. I'm talking about using the coercive power of government to put a stop to a barbarity. Presumably Bryan is supportive of legally barring the ownership of other human beings. He is contemplating legally barring abortion.

The willingness to use the power of the state to help those who are disadvantaged by chance is something that I think our descendants are going to look back on and be shocked that we didn't do more to address.

23 comments:

  1. First off, I think you're right about the animals thing: climate change/environmental sustainability is much better example for liberalism.

    However, I think you misunderstand the point of Bryan's post, which is to assume that ideology A is correct and then figure out what will horrify future adherents of ideology B and C the way liberals, conservatives, and libertarians are all horrified by slavery. To use the example all three of us seem to agree on, abortion (I think it might be useful to point out that there is not a conservative among the three of us, which might be telling with respect to the ITT component of this whole discussion).

    If conservatives are right about abortion, if, in the future, we learn that life begins at conception, most/all pregnancies or easily preventable enough to constitute a choice, most/all pregnancies entail only a minor sacrifice to bring a child to term, fetuses have the ability to think and feel pain almost immediately, etc, then all three ideologies will find our current policies regarding abortion to be horrifying.

    Similarly, if libertarians are right about our treatment of foreigners, if indiscriminate pacifism (in your words) is the best way to ensure national security, the best way to help foreigners, the best way to encourage economic and social development, etc, then both liberals and conservatives will be horrified by our current policy. Liberals will be horrified that we spent a massive amount of money to intentionally harm poor people, and conservatives will be horrified that we spent a massive amount of money to make our country less safe. However, if liberals are right about our treatment of foreigners, if indiscriminate pacifism isn't the best way to do all of these things and is actually harmful, then libertarians will still be horrified by our current policy. If libertarians are also correct that our commitment to the world's poor should almost infinitely supersede our commitment to the national poor, then liberals will be horrified by our current policy, but if liberals are right that our commitment to the national poor should supersede our commitment to the world's poor (do you actually believe this, or is it just politics?), then libertarians will still be horrified at our current policies. Thus, our treatment of foreigners is strictly a libertarian thing under Bryan's game, since libertarians outrage at the status quo would still exist even if liberals and conservatives are right, but if libertarians are right, then both other ideologies would join them in their outrage.

    This can also be used to address your point about the treatment of the poor. If liberals are right about the best ways to help the poor, certain libertarians (myself, for example) will definitely be outraged by our lack of action, but a whole big bunch of libertarians don't base their objection to liberals policies to help the poor on these grounds and will still scoff at the idea of using state coercion to bring about an end to poverty conditions that no individual actor brought about.

    The point to assume that you're wrong about something and figure out if that changes your moral reasoning. So, when you assume that you're not wrong about our treatment of foreigners, it defeats the whole purpose of the exercise.

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    1. re: "The point to assume that you're wrong about something and figure out if that changes your moral reasoning. So, when you assume that you're not wrong about our treatment of foreigners, it defeats the whole purpose of the exercise."

      So in other words, I am saying that libertarians do not distinguish themselves at all by suggesting the moral problem of "treatment of foreigners". I would accept that they suggest the moral problem of pacifism. I think they're wrong now, but I could be wrong about that. But they're NOT the only ones that treat the treatment of foreigners as a moral problem in the way that abolitionists treat slavery as a moral problem.

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    2. Read the long comment below first.

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  2. Your explanation of Bryan is precisely how I understood him. So let's try to work this out a little.

    My point on treatment of foreigners is just that it was vague. Like I said, both liberals and libertarians value this. It's a little confused because there may very well be more pacifist liberals than pacifist liberatarians (I'm not sure). It's also a little confused because we are also probably talking about two different "treatment of foreigners" options. Future people may be shocked that Bryan was a pacifist and would mistreat foreigners in that way. See what I'm getting at? I just thought that needed a little more clarification and that it wasn't as distinct (e.g. - the liberal pacifist) as some of the others.

    The middle and end of that paragraph lost me, probably because we have different senses of what liberals think and what libertarians think.

    I am not talking about "ways to help the poor". I am talking about the moral standing of the poor. Just being poor doesn't give a person a claim to a certain treatment for libertarians or conservatives. It does for liberals. It has moral significance the same way being a fetus has moral significance to a conservative.

    Does that clarify?

    I think we both see Bryan the same way we just see the issues differently.

    re: "but a whole big bunch of libertarians don't base their objection to liberals policies to help the poor on these grounds and will still scoff at the idea of using state coercion to bring about an end to poverty conditions that no individual actor brought about."

    Precisely. And in this scenario they would be comparable to the people that didn't especially like slavery but balked at ending it. We abhor them today. I'm saying we may very well abhor libertarians that think like this in the future.

    re: "So, when you assume that you're not wrong about our treatment of foreigners, it defeats the whole purpose of the exercise."

    No, you're misunderstanding me. I said it's something that libertarians and liberals both claim. My issue with that was a specificity and filing concern, not that I'm assuming I'm not wrong. IOW, without a lot more clarification on that one it's not clear it's any more of a "libertarian" thing than a "liberal" thing. With clarification we can definitely distinguish.

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  3. The "barbarity" of poverty is not like the other two problems that you mention. With poverty it is critical that any solution be endogenous if it is to 1) be long lived and 2) not cause other problems like disincentivizing work. More pragmatic libertarians have considered what you suggest - i.e., Friedman's negative income tax and Murrray's homogeneous lump sum distribution (Hayek suggested something similar.)

    What precisely do you have in mind? You leave us with a general statement - the state should do X - without considering the necessary constraints for the success of the generally suggested action.

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    1. But that was deliberate - this isn't really a discussion about policy so much as moral abhorrence. There are policy questions tied up in all the moral concerns Bryan raises too, after all.

      I share the strictures on policy that you offer in your first paragraph but I imagine I'd apply them differently.

      From what I can tell, Friedman, Murray, and Hayek don't consider this a fundamental moral problem or motivating moral issue. Like any human with a pulse, they obviously care about the poor and so offer solutions. But poverty is not to Friedman/Murray/Hayek/libertarians generally what slavery is to abolitionists.

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    2. Part of my point is that you can ban slavery outright. It is a legal relationship. You cannot simply ban poverty. This makes it more difficult to passionate about.

      If we implement a redistribution program where everyone receives 10,000 dollars, poverty is more likely a decision than bad luck (not ruling out bad luck, or systemic issues altogether). Can you see the current problem where it is difficult to parse out who is impoverished due to bad luck from others who choose to give up? The injustice of slavery is not a fair comparison.

      I am interested in a society where individuals can exercise autonomy. I cannot and have no desire to protect certain individuals from themselves. What they do with that autonomy given a set of rules and base income is their own concern.

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    3. re: "This makes it more difficult to passionate about."

      I am confused by this.

      So ease in passion is a function of the ease of a government solution? I don't get it.

      re: "If we implement a redistribution program where everyone receives 10,000 dollars, poverty is more likely a decision than bad luck"

      Decision making is in many ways a function of your upbringing, which is not your choice as a child.

      It's certainly hard to parse and I wouldn't dream of putting forward some kind of moral equivalence with slavery. Not in a million years. But I still find poverty amidst plenty to be a serious moral problem.

      re: "I am interested in a society where individuals can exercise autonomy. I cannot and have no desire to protect certain individuals from themselves. What they do with that autonomy given a set of rules and base income is their own concern."

      I agree.

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    4. It has nothing to do with whether the solution is a government solution. The fact that the legal system positively promoted ownership of other people makes the issue simpler. The problem of poverty is a negative one. We can't say that some entity or system is violating the rights of anyone in the way that slavery did. This makes solutions not altogether clear.

      Concerning the remark about decisions, I believe I covered your response in the original comment.

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  4. A few thoughts:

    -Bryan Caplan suffers from the odd tic common among libertarians that implicitly suggests that there are three grand ideologies - liberalism, conservatism, and libertarianism - and they are all equally independent of each other AND that liberalism and libertarianism especially never seem to agree. Despite being both empirically unfounded and historically puzzling, it also weirdly blockades Caplan from realizing that libertarians and liberals would see today's xenophobia, restrictive immigration policies, and police-state anti-immigrant measures as equally abhorrent.

    -All of these are really bad examples since large swathes of people ALREADY see them as abhorrent. This makes more sense, though, when you realize that Caplan's jumping-off point is 12 YEARS A SLAVE, which is set in the 1840s, a time when large swathes of Americans already thought slavery was intolerably abhorrent. All slaves in Britain were freed in 1834. The idea that nobody or very few people found slavery abhorrent at the time 1) makes the Civil War hard to figure 2) permits indulgence in right-wing smug self-righteousness when in fact the left was strongly anti-slavery for decades prior to its abolition and worked extremely hard to make that come about and 3) ignores why slavery persisted in spite of widespread abhorrence, which is that large economic power collected in the hands of few people can still wield tremendous political power, a fact that libertarians loathe to acknowledge.

    -"We're animals, and animals eat other animals. Most liberals are happy to eat other animals for exactly this reason. Tough luck - you're below us on the food chain. Of course outright cruelty to animals isn't a good thing, but that's not what Bryan is talking about and do you really have to be a liberal to think that cruelty to animals is bad? I hope not. Bryan takes some unusual life-style choices that are plausibly more common among liberals and invents a moral problem where there really isn't one."

    This is...odd. Firstly, it's an obvious naturalistic fallacy. Secondly, there's nothing mandatory about eating other animals - it's perfectly possible to be a healthy and happy vegetarian or vegan. Thirdly, it ignores the fact that morally-based vegetarianism is, like, a thing:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eating_Animals

    And really, if you think about it, any reason you can come up with for eating non-human animals but not eating human animals is fundamentally arbitrary unless you have religious reasons for doing so (which are neither here nor there). It also, of course, exposes Caplan's blindness to the fact that ALREADY lots and lots of people think our treatment of animals is abhorrent - no need to wait 150 years for popular movies about our terrible agricultural system, they already exist:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Food,_Inc.

    I mean, sheesh, PETA has been around longer than I've been alive.

    Basically, I think Caplan's whole premise is flawed and is basically an excuse for him to flog his nonsense false equivalencies and ahistorical mushy sophomoric philosophizing. To put it politely.

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    1. I have to push back on this idea that it's a naturalistic fallacy. It's absolutely not.

      It's only a naturalistic fallacy if you take a view of morality as being some sort of distinct set of rules handed down.

      If instead you think of it as rules of living in society such that everyone feels respected and has a chance to flourish (or something along those lines... I'm not a moral philosopher and I'm sure a moral philosopher could put it better), then it's absolutely legitimate to recognize some things as they are as being important inputs into morality.

      This is quite different from saying that everything that happens in nature is automatically good. I've said nothing of the sort.

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    2. re: "Thirdly, it ignores the fact that morally-based vegetarianism is, like, a thing"

      Wrong.

      It doesn't "ignore" that.

      It disputes the relevance of veganism to a moral life. I know plenty of morally-based vegetarians. I'm well aware of the phenomenon. I think it's a silly way of thinking about morality.

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    3. A few responses:

      -I guess it's hard to read "Tough luck - you're below us on the food chain." as anything other than a version of the naturalistic fallacy/appeal to nature.

      -I guess where I would take issue with your argument (and to be completely honest I am playing at least a bit of devil's advocate here since my own 'position' on this, as it were, is confused, wobbly, and indecisive) is that the "everyone" you refer to doesn't include animals even though the only way to exclude them is via some fundamentally arbitrary distinction.

      -I'm not a moral philosopher or ethicist either, but I'm not sure exactly where you're coming from in terms of rules or inputs.

      -I said you "ignored" it because you didn't really acknowledge it. Insofar as I want to give any credit to Caplan, he is correct that there is some significant number of people, largely associated with liberalism/progressivism/the left in the US, who abstain from consuming animals or animal products because they feel it is unethical or immoral to do so. You may think it's silly but it's out there and I think it's worth taking seriously.

      Anyway, that was only a tangent to my larger point which is that Caplan is silly.

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    4. A distinction, yes. Why do you say "arbitrary".

      The use of that word is... well... arbitrary it seems.

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    5. Well...why should we eat non-human animals and not humans? Trying to come up with a rule that meaningfully excludes humans while not excluding many if not most animals consumed by humans, other than "humans are just different and that's the long and the short of it" or "cannibalism is gross" is actually really hard.

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    6. I find both of those pretty persuasive.

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    7. Yeah, but they're not rooted in any principle deeper than themselves right. They're the axioms, not the derivatives. Which is what it is.

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    8. "I find both of those pretty persuasive."

      OK. Now you're either trolling, or you are simply stupid.

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  5. "Indeed that's a big part of why I'm pro-choice. In the face of such a contested question I find it hard to tell everyone to follow one viewpoint. But if the conservative view is correct this is a monstrosity."

    I am pro-choice myself, but I don't think doubt necessarily leads one to a pro-choice position. In fact, I believe the opposite to be correct. Consider the results of the two options if they are wrong:

    If pro-lifers are wrong, they are advocating a major inconvenience (I'm assuming here pro-lifers who support medically-motivated abortions) to some women.
    If pro-choicers are wrong, they are advocating the legalization of murdering one's child when that child is at its most vulnerable.

    This is a form of Pascal's wager and the numbers seem to favor the pro-life position if we assume that 9 months of major inconvenience are insignificant compared to child murder. (One could also invoke the precautionary principle if one wanted to incur my wrath, but I am sure one will be more prudent than that.)

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  6. Uh, you need to give more thought to the issue of eating animals for mere pleasure (what everyone in the first world does). Your blithe dismissal means you haven't spent enough time with it.

    Also, I strongly disagree that the immigrant issue is as much of a liberal thing as it is a libertarian thing. You will find pretty much zero MSNBC-watching, card-carrying libs backing open borders or anything close to it. While there is a strain of libertarians who are anti-immigrant, it doesn't change the fact that almost anyone is strongly pro-immigrant is a libertarian.

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  7. The fact that we let more than a billion children die preventable deaths over the last 60 years because we were selfish makes me think our descendants should view Americans (and Europeans, and Japanese and rich people in poor countries) with as much distaste as we view slave owners. At least I think very negatively of everyone. We can all donate, and we can all support better government policies. But we don't care that hundreds of millions of people are hungry and dying unnecessarily.

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  8. The fact that we let more than a billion children die preventable deaths over the last 60 years because we were selfish makes me think our descendants should view Americans (and Europeans, and Japanese and rich people in poor countries) with as much distaste as we view slave owners. At least I think very negatively of everyone. We can all donate, and we can all support better government policies. But we don't care that hundreds of millions of people are hungry and dying unnecessarily.

    ReplyDelete
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